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Repair Cafes:The Beating Heart Of The Right To Repair Movement

Above photo: The Tool Library in Buffalo, New York. The Tool Library.

Right-to-repair legislation is crucial to systemic change.

But every item salvaged through America’s growing patchwork of local repair movements is its own victory.

In the age of two-day shipping and planned obsolescence, we’ve come to look at the things we own as largely disposable, with devastating consequences for our environment, our communities and ourselves. Recent EPA estimates put the total generation of municipal solid waste at roughly 292.4 million tons each year.

In a little over a generation, we’ve transformed from a society of “Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make it Do, or Do Without” to a society of “Dig, Burn, Dump.” Gone are the days of family heirlooms and the passing down of gifts from generation to generation. As we face the intersecting crises of climate change, environmental degradation and waste management, calls for right-to-repair legislation and a transition to a circular economy are gaining momentum.

On Dec. 28, 2023, the nation’s first comprehensive right-to-repair law went into effect. New York State’s Digital Fair Repair Act requires manufacturers to make parts, tools and guides needed to repair items available to everyone. Several states have since proposed similar legislative actions.

While such right-to-repair legislation is crucial to broader systemic change, it’s the patchwork of local repair movements independently popping up — in New York state and across the country — that is changing hearts and minds when it comes to waste and giving us hope that a different world is possible.

Here at The Tool Library in Buffalo, New York, we launched our own take on the global Repair Cafe movement back in 2017. Repair Cafes and similar community-led repair initiatives are community spaces where individuals converge to mend their broken or malfunctioning items under the expert guidance of skilled volunteers. Far beyond mere workshops, these free cafes represent dynamic hubs of collaboration, empowerment, and intergenerational skill-sharing.

As we navigate the complexities of the right-to-repair movement, Repair Cafes stand out as a crucial pillar, offering tangible solutions that resonate with the principles of sustainability, self-sufficiency and community resilience. They help us challenge the notion of disposability and make us more accountable to the things we buy and the things we bring into the world.

To date, our Dare to Repair Cafes in Buffalo have led to the repair of more than 800 items, 7,554 pounds diverted from landfills, and more than $40,000 in savings for community members.

Every repaired item at a Repair Cafe represents a small victory against the throwaway culture that has become synonymous with modern consumerism. From electronics to clothing, these spaces tackle a diverse range of items, diverting them from landfills and minimizing the ecological footprint associated with manufacturing new products.

More than just recognizing the economic and environmental impacts Repair Cafes can have in our communities, we must also emphasize and celebrate the skill-sharing and community-building aspects of these events. Volunteers with expertise in various fields, from electronics to textiles, come together to share their knowledge and empower others. Attendees, often with little to no repair experience, learn practical skills that extend beyond fixing a single item.

This transfer of knowledge is a powerful tool in the fight against planned obsolescence – the deliberate design of products with a limited lifespan.

Repair Cafes empower individuals to take control of their possessions, bridging the gap between consumers and their gadgets. This empowerment is not just about fixing broken devices; it’s about instilling a sense of self-sufficiency and reducing dependence on manufacturers and costly repair services.

In a world overcome with an environmental narrative of doom and gloom, Repair Cafes remind us that repair is a practical action we can take where we live to transform our relationship with the things we own and the systems we choose to participate in.

In Buffalo, I’ve had several Dare to Repair participants come up to me at events to say that when something breaks in their home now, they save it and set it aside for the next Dare to Repair Cafe. It is these small, incremental changes in people’s everyday habits that, cumulatively, can have a transformative impact on the future.

While awaiting legislative changes is part of the broader strategy, relying solely on this process will delay the positive impact repair movements can bring to communities right now. Community-based organizations, local businesses, and passionate individuals can take the lead in driving change from the ground up. And if you want to help forge that future, here are a few simple calls to action.

  1. Support your local Repair Cafes. Enjoy troubleshooting, tinkering, and teaching people how to repair? Then you might just be the person your local repair cafe is looking for! Volunteer your time as a fixer. Even if you aren’t super skilled or handy, you can help check people in, advertise events, collect and analyze metrics, or help with fundraising. Donated food and refreshments also help put the “cafe” in Repair Cafe!

  2. Establish Repair Cafes. If you don’t yet have a repair cafe in your town or city, reach out to your local community center, library or school to see if they might be interested in hosting one. Once you’ve secured a space, then it’s time to put the call out for volunteer fixers. Remember, these events not only extend the lifespan of products but also create a sense of solidarity among participants.

  3. Host skill-sharing workshops. Organize workshops that teach basic repair skills. These can range from simple tasks like replacing a cord on a lamp to more complex repairs for household appliances. By sharing knowledge within the community, individuals become more self-sufficient and less dependent on external repair services or purchasing new equipment.

  4. Promote local repair businesses. Encourage and support local repair businesses that prioritize sustainability and offer repair services for a variety of devices. By choosing local repair services over manufacturers, consumers contribute to the growth of a circular economy within their community.

  5. Advocate for Right-to-Repair. While awaiting legislative changes, communities can actively advocate for the right-to-repair at the local level. Engage with local representatives, organize town hall meetings, and raise awareness about the benefits of repair movements. Community voices can be a powerful force in influencing policy decisions.

  6. Integrate repair education. Schools and educational institutions can play a role in integrating repair education into their curricula. By teaching students practical repair skills, we can foster a generation that values sustainability and understands the importance of repairing over replacing.

At its core, the right-to-repair movement seeks to shift the narrative around consumerism and disposability. Repair Cafes play a pivotal role in this paradigm shift by fostering a culture of repair. In a society conditioned to replace rather than repair, these community spaces challenge the notion that a broken device is beyond redemption.

By providing a supportive environment for repairing items, Repair Cafes encourage individuals to view their possessions not as disposable commodities but as valuable assets that can be sustained over generations. Through them, we can ensure that right-to-repair is not just a legal concept but a lived reality in every neighborhood.

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